How To Practice Singing Part III: Identity-Based Habits hero

How To Practice Singing Part III: Identity-Based Habits

Posted Saturday, February 10th 2024 by Zac Bradford
This is part III of my series "How To Practice Singing", where I take a deep dive into the fundamentals of building habits for singing, drawing inspiration from works by James Clear ("Atomic Habits"), Simon Sinek, and more.

You can view part I of the series here, where I compared two different practicing styles: Striving vs Contentment. You can also view part II of the series here, where we discuss how you can practice with intention.

New Year New Me... Right?

We can all relate to the feeling of setting a goal or New Year's resolution, only to find that after a few months, we aren't able to sustain the new habit required to achieve the goal or desired outcome. This can happen for many reasons as certain things are out of our control: work gets busy, family circumstances or illness. This is where knowing what drives our habits, as well as creating systems to establish and sustain habits that withstand the ever-changing and unpredictable aspects of life, are essential. 

In his internationally best-selling book, James Clear lays out a remarkable framework for creating lasting habits in our lives. He states “Habits are like atoms of our lives. Each one is a fundamental unit that contributes to overall improvement“. (Clear, 2018, p.27) 

He writes about concepts that have now become commonly referenced in pop culture, such as his Four Laws for behaviour change, Identity-Based Habits and the Compounding effect of 1% changes. In the coming articles in this practice series, we are going to use these concepts as a framework for looking at how you can establish and maintain a sustainable singing practice routine, or in other words create a practice habit that sticks! 

In this article we will start by looking at what drives our habits, and what may be ideal for forming a singing practice habit that we can stick with long-term. 

The Art of Changing Habits

When it comes to changing habits we struggle for two main reasons, according to Clear: 

  1. We try to change the wrong thing {Which will be the focus of this article}
  2. We try to change our habits in the wrong way {"Process change" will be the main focus of the coming four articles on Clear’s Four laws for behaviour change.}

What drives our behaviour change?

A great place to begin when trying to understand habit formation and alteration is with the concept of the three levels of behaviour change: 

  1. Outcome Change: This is concerned with what goals or results we wish to achieve. In singing this could include: Wanting to increase pitch accuracy, decreasing strain/effort, winning the upcoming talent competition, etc. Goals may arise as a response to an issue or challenge we are facing, or to fulfill an aspiration. Outcome change may be necessary when the result we have isn’t realistic, or when we have a change of heart about what it is that we want to achieve. 
  2. Process Change: This is about changing habits, systems and routines including the how, where and when we warm up, work through vocal exercises, learn new songs, develop aural skills, rehearse, attend voice lessons & workshops etc. Process change can occur intentionally as you work to become consistent with your practice habit and as you continually work to optimize it. 
  3. Identity Change: This is focused on your beliefs and judgments about yourself and others. In the context of singing and singing practice, this could be a belief such as: “I want to be the type of person who sings regularly because I love to sing!”. Alternatively, it could be a negative belief: “I can’t sing and shouldn’t even try to”. Sadly, I have heard many people tell me they believe this, usually as the result of some experience early in life, where someone told that person that they are tone deaf or have an ugly tone. 

To summarize these levels, Clear explains: 

Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are about what you do. Identity is about what you believe… (it’s) not that one level is “better” or “worse” than another. All levels of change are useful in their way. The problem is the direction of change….True behaviour change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes a part of your identity”. (Clear, 2018, p30)

Direction of change

Many singers start a regular vocal practice routine because they have a specific goal in mind they wish to work toward. These goals range from: 

  • Technical: range extension, belting, smoothing out register transitions, etc. 
  • Institutional: being accepted into a local choir, school band or university program
  • Performance: singing at the staff karaoke Christmas party, recording an EP of original songs, or preparing for a role in the upcoming theatre production

When it comes to working towards these goals some singers create a plan to take voice lessons, attend group classes, utilize online content and/or practice singing a certain number of times per week for a particular duration. In this case, a goal is decided upon and then at best a plan is made to achieve that goal, and at worst there is no plan and practice occurs when possible, with little or inconsistant progress toward the goal. 

Regarding the direction of change, Clear states: “Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.” (James Clear, n.d.) As mentioned earlier, systems (i.e. Processes) will be explored in much more detail in future articles. To Clear’s point about outcomes being good for direction and processes for progress, how then does identity factor in? James Clear gives a wonderful example that illustrates this beautifully:

“Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke the first person says, “No thanks. I’m trying to quit.” It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker who is trying to be someone else. They are hoping their behaviour will change while carrying out the same beliefs. The second person declines by saying “No thanks, I'm not a smoker”. It's a small difference but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was part of their former life, not their current one. They are no longer someone who smokes. (Clear, 2018 p.32)

In Clear's example, the first person was trying to change the habit by way of changing the outcome, which Clear refers to as an Outcome-Based Habit:  Which moves in this direction: 

Outcome -> Process -> Identity

Person number two changed their habit by way of altering their identity or belief about themselves which Clear refers to as an Identity-Based Habit: 

Identity -> Process -> Outcome

How does this help a singer change habits?

Example Scenario 1. 

Singer X has a goal of being able to sing out a high C with power {Outcome} and decides to practice six times a week for 1 hr per session {Process} and believes it is worth being able to sing that note powerfully at any cost {Identity}. With this goal in mind and by following this practice routine for a few months Singer X learns to sing a powerful high C, however, starts to experience excess strain each time and eventually gets a hoarse voice. Now Singer X could decide to change the goal and lower the note or intensity goal {Outcome}, or reduce the duration of practice sessions {Process Change}. Perhaps this experience causes Singer X to rethink the previously held belief that they are willing to achieve this goal at all costs {Identity Change}.

Singer X may benefit from change in all three of these levels to reduce the stress and strain on their voice. However, until Singer X changes their stance to one that reflects the belief that singing shouldn’t cause stress and strain on their voice, they are likely to run into this issue again when pursuing other vocal goals. On the other hand, if Singer X learns from this experience and chooses to believe that singing (and voice use) should be free from strain and that longevity of the voice is a priority, then the Processes and Outcomes involved in their singing journey are more likely to adapt to accommodate these core values. On the topic of goal direction Clear shares that: 

A goal-oriented mindset can create a yo-yo effect. Many runners work hard for months, but as soon as they cross the finish line they stop training. The race is no longer there to motivate them. When all of your hard work is focused on a particular goal, what is left to push you forward after you achieve it? (Clear, 2018, p.26)

Does this mean goals are bad?

The short answer is no. To reiterate, identity change is NOT better than process or outcome change or vice versa, they all are valuable and integral parts of habit formation. You can, and should aim to have goals and use them to set direction and additional motivation for your practice and training. It is possible to simultaneously develop an Identity-Based practice habit with goals, and both can be motivational forces. The consideration here is that a goal alone without a core set of principles, beliefs, and clarity around WHY you are engaged in singing can be problematic for developing a process (i.e. practice routine, training) that is sustainable long-term. It is worth adding that a person with negative beliefs about themselves and their vocal identity will likely also have problems sustaining long-term development. 

Start with the WHY!

Simon Sinek, author of Start with WHY and famous for one of the most popular Ted videos, defines the "Why" as “your purpose, cause, or belief”. (Sinek, 2009, 2:56) Although his book is focused more on business and leadership this concept can be transferred to any discipline or aspect of life. Sinek talks about the Golden Circle which consists of the "Why", the "How", and the "What"….. Most of us tend to start with the "What" which in Clear's terms is the Outcome (Goal) or maybe the "How" (Practice/Training) which is the Process, but very few of us start with the "Why" (Values/Beliefs) or Identity. 

It is sad for me to hear when a student loses the desire to sing. From time to time this type of conversation happens after a student receives the news that they didn’t get into their desired university music program or they didn’t land the part in the musical. When this happens I have learned to ask them the question: Why do you love to sing? The question is usually met with a pause from the student, and then an answer that often goes something like: “I don’t know… it makes me feel good I guess. I love telling stories through songs and getting to express myself”. 

The reality is that we are not always going to achieve our goals in the time or way that we set out to. We will not always get the role, win the talent competition, or even sing with perfect intonation at the staff Christmas party. The good news is that if we have a firm awareness of our Identity ("Why"), then we can take advantage of Outcomes ("What") for direction, motivation, and Process ("How") for productivity and optimization and yet not be crushed when we don’t achieve the goal. Additionally, if we are clear on the “Why”, we will still have a reason to sing and practice even when we’ve just achieved a goal and don’t have another on the horizon. 

Okay... So how do I apply this to my singing practice?

As Clear says:

To change your behaviour for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself. (Clear, n.d.) 

So if you want to practice regularly and make it a lasting habit, you need to have clarity regarding what you believe about yourself. The first step is to adopt a growth mindset (i.e. I believe that I can improve and achieve my goals). If you already have an excellent growth mindset, then the next step will be to gain specificity around your beliefs (see exercise below). If however, you have a fixed mindset, (i.e. I'm tone deaf and don’t like the sound of my voice, I can’t learn to sing and shouldn’t try), then you will need to be intentional about developing a growth mindset. This is easier when around others with growth mindsets and who are encouraging of you in general and specifically of you on your singing journey. Seeking out supportive mentors (voice teachers, choir directors, etc.) and a community of peers (bandmates, cast members, music students,rs etc.) can make a huge difference in developing a growth mindset and forming identity-based habits. Dr. Carol Dweck writes in her book Mindset

The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives. (Dweck, 2006, p.6)

Assuming you have, or are in the process of adopting a growth mindset about your singing and about yourself in general, the next step I would recommend is to ask yourself what type of person, and specifically what type of singer you want to be.

Here is an example:

Goal: “I want to develop better control and coordination with my voice”.

Identity: “I want to be the type of person who doesn’t miss a singing practice session.” 

Small Win: Spend 2 minutes warming up each day. 

If you know you want to improve your vocal coordination, then decide to be the type of person who sings every day. You can then prove to yourself that you are this type of person by spending 2 minutes warming up in the morning. 

This final exercise (see below) is adapted from Clear’s Identity-Based Habits worksheet which I recommend you check out here: QuickStart Guide to Identity-Based Habits

Identity-Based Habits Exercise 

*Tip: Write the following down and put it where you will see it each day (e.g. on your fridge)

Step 1. Name the singing goal you want to achieve. e.g. Have a song memorized and performance ready for the student recital in 6 months. 

Step 2. In one sentence describe the type of person who would achieve your goal. e.g. I want to be the type of person who doesn’t miss a practice session, and who is willing to put myself in uncomfortable situations. (*This is the new identity you want to take on.)

Step 3: List 5 incredibly small steps you can take to become this person.

E.g. 1. Create a practice plan 2. Listen to the song once per day 3. Perform in front of a family member or friend. 

Commit to doing each step for a week straight before moving on to the next. The goal is not to achieve results at first, the goal is to become the type of person who can achieve those things.

Find YOUR "Why"!

If you are looking to make your singing practice habit stick long term, begin by identifying your "Why". Starting with specificity around the type of person you would like to be will help you to align your goals and the habits you create to achieve them with your core values. In the long term, this Identity-Based Habit approach gives you a much better chance of creating a singing practice routine that will stick!

In the next article in this Practice series we will begin to examine the first of Clear's Four laws for behavior change and look at specific challenges and strategies singers can employ to build systems needed to make positive and lasting changes. 


Zac Bradford

Director of NYVC Australia/Voice Teacher Associate

Zac Bradford is the Director of NYVC Australia. His clients have reached the Top 10 on the Billboard charts, have been featured in Hollywood films, TV shows, have worked as backing singers for AAA touring artists, and are performing on Broadway, Off-Broadway, 1st US Tours, internationally, and more. His clients also perform in famous live music venues including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The Blue Note, Rockwood Music Hall and The Bitter End.

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